Downtown Raleigh filled Wednesday with thousands of teachers who marched in the morning and rallied in the afternoon rain as they demanded that lawmakers do more to raise teacher pay and education spending in North Carolina.
The "March for Students and Rally for Respect" — the largest act of organized teacher political action in state history — was organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators. Although the NCAE said 30,000 people took part, the Downtown Raleigh Alliance estimated the crowd at about 19,000.
The all-day event meant that more than 1 million public school students had the day off because schools couldn't find enough substitute teachers to keep schools open.
"You did something that's never been done in the great state of North Carolina," NCAE president Mark Jewell told the teachers. "You were able to close down the learning today and take the teaching to the General Assembly."
The teachers, almost all wearing red, chanted slogans such as "This is what democracy looks like," "I believe that we will win" and "Hey hey, ho ho, the attack on schools has got to go."
They marched up Fayetteville and Salisbury streets in the morning from the NCAE headquarters to the state legislature. Many of the businesses along Fayetteville Street opened their doors to teachers, who made bathroom and food stops. The Sheraton provided free bottled water and snacks for teachers who stopped in.
Once at the legislature, many teachers waited in long lines to enter the legislative building and fill the gallery. At one point, chanting from the teachers drowned out the legislative business.
"We would just like to collectively recognize and thank all the teachers from around the state who traveled to be with us," House Speaker Tim Moore said from the floor.
In the afternoon, teachers met with individual lawmakers before a rally in Bicentennial Plaza. Gov. Roy Cooper was among the speakers before heavy rain fell after 4 p.m.
Signs included sayings such as "NC teachers are superheroes," "My 2nd job paid for this sign," "#BROKEBUTWOKE" and "I shouldn't have to marry a sugar daddy to be a teacher in North Carolina."
Ruth Johnsen, the orchestra teacher at Ligon Middle School in Raleigh, said, "Educators need to be respected. It is not an expense, it's an investment."
Reid Guthrie of Siler City said that even though he is not a teacher, he stands with them. "It's important to show my support for the teachers and show the legislature it is not about teachers being greedy or being thugs."
Kim Andrews, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Community House Middle School in Charlotte, said, "In my entire teaching career I never had the opportunity to do something like this, where there's power in numbers and our voices have an opportunity to be heard."
The NCAE is demanding that state legislators raise both teacher pay and per-pupil spending to the national average in the next four years and freeze corporate tax cuts until that happens. Their platform also calls for a statewide $1.9 billion school construction bond referendum placed on the ballot.
The call to freeze planned tax cuts was echoed by Cooper during the afternoon rally, where he said more money is needed to increase spending on the state's public schools.
"We trust you, our teachers," Cooper said. "And we need to put our money where our trust is."
NCAE is hoping to build momentum over the next six months to elect "pro-education candidates" this fall to the General Assembly. Jewell, the NCAE president, told the teachers that Cooper needs "some friends" to end the Republican legislature's veto-proof majority.
Joanne Bernard, a Cabarrus County teacher, said she hopes the march and rally will have an effect on how public education is funded in North Carolina.
"If anything, it shows people that we are a collective voice and that we're ready to come out and vote as a group in November," she said.
Republican legislative leaders are pointing to how they've increased education funding and are planning to give teachers this year an average 6.2 percent raise, the fifth straight year of raises.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Moore said this is the fifth year in a row that the legislature will increase teacher pay.
"We've led the nation two years in a row in raising teacher pay," he said. "We support their profession and appreciate what they do."
Republicans have criticized the timing of the protest, which occurred during school hours on the first day of this year's legislative session. At least 42 school districts, including the state's six largest — Wake County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford County, Winston-Salem/Forsyth, Cumberland County and Union County — canceled classes for the day.
"It’s just unfortunate that what is happening is inconveniencing so many students — about a million students are missing a day of school," Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters Wednesday afternoon. "They could have organized this on a day after school was out. We’re going to be here for five or six weeks at least, and it could have been done at another time."
Tristan Mills was in Raleigh to support his wife, Elizabeth, a teacher at Queen's Grant High School in Matthews. Both are registered Republicans.
"For us this is a policy issue and not a partisan issue," he said. "And it's been frustrating to see many of the House members dismiss this as a partisan event. There shouldn't be anything conflicting between the conservative platform and education. North Carolina has a very strong education heritage, and I think it's time to remember that. This is something that defines the character of North Carolina."
Some teachers, such as Chad Schueremeyer, a Catawba County drama teacher, are losing money to attend the march. They're in districts that didn't cancel classes Wednesday, so the teachers have to pay $50 for a substitute to cover their classes.
"The reason we're all here is to fight for our kids so that they will have what they need in the classroom," Schuermeyer said.
Diana Niemann, a science teacher at South Mecklenburg High in Charlotte, said some teachers at the school didn't come to Raleigh "because they said they have so much work to do today."
Niemann added that a parent offered to pay for gas money for teachers to make the trip to Raleigh from Charlotte. "She said, 'you shouldn't have to pay for this, to go advocate for yourself.'"
The march comes after teacher strikes and walkouts earlier this year in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia led to changes such as pay raises and higher education spending. Like North Carolina, those are right-to-work states with weak or no official teachers unions and Republican majorities in the statehouse.
Democratic Rep. Becky Carney of Charlotte said she thinks Wednesday's march will have an impact.
"This has been building since 2010," she said. "It's waking people up. It's happening nationally, and I'm glad it's happening in North Carolina."
Conservative groups seized on a letter sent Monday night by NCAE Organize 2020 to event participants saying they "were inspired by the powerful organizing and social justice focus of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and have been working to bring similar energy to North Carolina.” Organize 2020 says the march can be used to build up support for public education and NCAE.
"If May 16 is going to matter, we have to build our union," Organize 2020 says in the email.
Carol Cosetti, who teaches fifth grade at Polenta Elementary School in Johnston County, said teachers aren’t properly equipped to fulfill state and federal mandates.
“We’re being pushed to include more technology in our instruction, but I have three students sharing a laptop. And that’s just not going to work,” Cosetti said. “Enough is enough.”
Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Education, the group that convinced the Durham school board to become the first in the state to cancel classes May 16, claimed victory for teachers early Wednesday.
"It's already made a difference," Proffitt said. "We've defeated hopelessness, we've already defeated fear — which are our biggest enemies right now."
Andrews, the Community House Middle teacher, said educators will be back on the job Thursday.
"No matter what happens today we're going back to our schools," she said. "We love our kids."
Staff writers Paul A. Specht, Will Doran, Lynn Bonner, Anne Blythe, Colin Campbell and Lauren Horsch contributed to this report.